A couple of years ago, at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, I became aware of how my skin color doubled as a conversation starter. My cousins and I, all of brown skin, were perusing the area when we saw a city resident out for a run. He waved, to which we waved back, and asked us where we were from. This question triggered an unconscious, natural response: “I’m from San Jose, California, born and raised.” The runner smirked, quirked his head and asked, “No, where are you really from?”
I tend to trick myself into thinking that an insensitive question or comment is a display of harmless curiosity. If a friendly, kind person wants to know something about me, I automatically assume that they deserve a friendly, kind response. For a large portion of my life, I neglected to entertain the idea that there is indeed a fundamental difference between curiosity and microaggressions. There’s a difference between innocence and ignorance.
In San Francisco, the runner’s question was not pure curiosity as much as it was “othering.” Asking an American person of color where they are really from reinforces a false, racist notion that to be American is to be white. This definition implies that all non-white Americans are “aliens,” or foreigners. The runner’s question, however unintentional or intentional, was ostracizing and demoralizing to my concept of identity.
Ignorance is all around us, even at a self-declared “progressive” liberal arts college in California. Coming to Claremont McKenna College, I was told multiple times by several of my peers that they did not know what my ethnicity was. This was not an issue with me — I am proud of where my family comes from, their traditions and their culture.
What I did take a critical issue with, however, was the gap in understanding. When I asked where they thought my family was from, I was told by fellow students that they “don’t see color.” Said with a self-important tone, the declaration of my peers’ supposed feat felt more like a colossal loss. I started to comprehend that people mask their discomfort with apathy, and as a result, demonstrate salient microaggressive behavior.
It does seem, sometimes, that people of color cannot really win. To some, I am too brown to be “American,” and to others, the erasure of my identity is easier to digest than the intricacy of it. Questions are too invasive and comments too oblivious.
Still, the responsibility to create a more inclusive picture of “American-ness” falls on white Americans, not people of color. Solutions are broad, but worth it for the sake of your peers and your greater community. Prioritize the comfort of your friends with intersectional identities when you initiate conversations.
Instead of asking me where I’m really from, ask me who I am; a simple “tell me about yourself” lets me guide you towards territory that is safe for me, territory that I feel secure breaching with you. Instead of telling me you “do not see color,” intentionally and intently listen to me talk about my experiences as a person of color. Allow yourself to know more instead of being complacent in knowing less.
If you are a student on this campus who has possibly initiated insensitive dialogue, know that there is opportunity to become more aware. Take on the challenge of educating yourself on respectful conversation instead of making your friends feel obligated to navigate them. Diversity should be as important a lived experience for me as it is a learning experience for you.
Shay Suresh CM ’24 is from San Jose, California. She loves literary fiction, indie music and browsing Pinterest.